Ask any NBA player or coach where they would prefer to play a high-stakes game, home or away, and the vast majority will choose being in the friendly confines of their home arena. Overall, the win-loss records of most teams would support that, but they would do even better if they taught their home fans a lesson in performance psychology.
When it comes to sports skills, research has shown that we’re better off to just do it rather than consciously thinking about the mechanics of each sub-component of the move. Waiting for a pitch, standing over a putt or stepping up to the free throw line gives our brains too much opportunity to start breaking down the task. Add competitive pressure brought on by a close game watched by a loyal home fans, and we can easily slip out of the well-practiced mental map, known as auto-pilot, that usually gets the job done.
But what about elite athletes who are the best in the game? Surely, they’ve found ways to handle pressure and keep their brains on auto-pilot? Actually no, says researchers Matt Goldman and Justin Rao. In a study presented at last weekend’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they revealed an interesting paradox: playing in front of a home crowd can be both a benefit and a curse for NBA players.
For most of a basketball game, players are in constant motion reacting to their teammates and opponents. They have very little time for “self-focus” or thinking too much about the dozens of small movements that make up their motor skills, except for one event – the free throw. After being fouled while taking a shot, the play comes to a halt. The aggrieved player stands at the free throw line, fifteen feet from the basket, with the other nine players as well as thousands of fans staring at him.
The crowd, thinking they’re doing him a favor, gets eerily quiet. The pressure builds as he’s allowed to remember the score of the game, how much time is left and the disappointment that he and almost everyone else there will feel if he misses this shot. To counter this, he starts running through his mental checklist: find a focus point, keep your elbow in, bend your knees, follow-through. Bringing all of these pieces into his conscious mind will most likely cause him to miss the shot, only adding more pressure if he’s fouled again.
Goldman and Rao compared the stage of fright of shooting free throws with another very common basketball skill—offensive rebounding. Recovering the ball after a missed shot is vital to a team’s chances of winning since it provides another possession and opportunity to score. It’s also a task that is done in the constant motion of the game with the crowd cheering. There is no time to self-reflect on the skill components of rebounding, it just happens. If a player does not get a rebound, there is no obvious public shame as the play immediately continues.
So, could playing in front of a home crowd affect one part a player’s game but not another?
Using detailed play-by-play data from every NBA game from 2005-2010 (six full seasons), including 1.3 million possessions and 300,000 free throw attempts, they first found an expected result. They found that in general, home team players have a higher overall free throw shooting percentage than the visitors. However, Goldman and Rao then looked at what happens in clutch situations, which they define, in a detailed mathematical formula, as being late in the game when the score is close. In those high pressure moments, the home team does significantly worse at the charity stripe than their opponents. They blame this mostly on the actions of the fans. To go from constant noise and fast action, to perfect quiet and stillness is enough to take even the best basketball players in the world out of their rhythm and into a damaging self-talk state.
At the other end of the court, when visiting players are taking free throws, the crowd, again thinking they’re helping, goes crazy with waving arms, signs and noise. However, the data showed that the free throw percentages of the visitors in clutch situations remains unchanged from their normal away percentage. The researchers argue that the distractions actually help the opponents at the line by not allowing them to think about their complicated motor skills.
To show that the pressure doesn’t affect all skills, the stats also showed that the home team’s offensive rebounds got progressively better in clutch situations supporting the theory that positive support can increase effort. As with free throws, the visiting team’s clutch performance in rebounding was unchanged from normal game situations.
Not all players are created equal. The study called out a few NBA players as being either clutch at the free throw line or chokers under pressure, including two of the game’s top stars. Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, who has a career 83% free throw percentage, is the player you most want at the line when the game is close. On the other hand, Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics, with an 80% career percentage, was the second worst free throw shooter in clutch situations.
Maybe a few brave Celtic fans at the Garden can begin to reverse the trend and go crazy when Pierce is at the line. Just be sure to be near an exit.